Aging Gracefully (and a birthday examen)

We all know the benefits of a childlike faith. But what about childlike aging?

Children embrace birthdays with joy and wonder. They’re eager to reach another year and celebrate another milestone. So children will say things like:

“When I’m 6, I’ll go to school.”

“When I’m 12, I can stay up late.”

“When I’m 16, I’ll be the one driving.”

And on and on it goes. When each age brings new opportunities and abilities, there is no reason to look back with longing or regret. Toddlers don’t miss being infants any more than teenagers would want to return to elementary school. Instead, the focus is always on moving forward and embracing the exciting unknown.

Then, somewhere along the line, everything shifts. We start looking ahead with fear and looking behind with a wistful longing for simpler days and smoother faces. It’s different for everyone, but for me, the big shift happened when I turned 30. 

A few months before my birthday, I was gripped with a terrible fear that I had “wasted” my 20s. Why oh why hadn’t I invested more time in dating? Why had I been so eager to rush onto the mission field? Maybe if I’d played my cards better, I wouldn’t be entering a new decade completely alone in a foreign country. 

That was a heavy, sad period of my life. It was the longing of my heart to be married, and I had nearly convinced myself that God was deaf to my many pleas. My unmet desire took up a lot of space in my heart and mind, making it very challenging to walk into the future with hope in God’s love and provision. (To this day, I still have anxiety dreams where I’m old and single and suddenly realize I forgot to ever go on a date!) 

Yet, within two years of that fated 30th birthday, I married the best man I’ve ever known. And six years after that we’re still happily married and living a life we love. It turns out there had been a whole lot to look forward to in my 30s; I just hadn’t been able to see it beyond all of my fears and regrets and doubts.

Now I’m getting uncomfortably close to another milestone birthday. Later this month, I’ll turn 38, which is within spitting distance of 40. Somehow another decade of life is coming to an end, and, once again, there’s a strong temptation to fight the march of time. Except now, my inner dialogue sounds more like this:

“When I was in my early 30s, I didn’t have these ugly wrinkles.”

“When I was in my 20s, I didn’t worry about my 401K.” 

“When I was a teenager, it was a lot easier to bounce back after an injury.”

Struggling with these thoughts ushers in a lot of guilt. I know many of my concerns about aging are trivial. I know I’m lucky and blessed to reach this age and be this healthy. And I know that “good Christians” probably shouldn’t spend quite so much time researching anti-aging creams! 

So I’m trying to return to a childlike approach to aging. I want to once again embrace the aging process with joy and wonder, eager and excited to see what God has in store for me up ahead. 

Honestly, I don’t know how to age gracefully, but this time around I do know that God is not deaf to my pleas. As I’ve been praying and seeking and asking for help in this transitional time, God reminded me of one of my favorite prayers: the Examen. This evening prayer is a way of examining the last 24 hours to look for God’s activity in your life. 

Since the Examen has deepened my ability to depend on God day by day, I decided to create a Birthday Examen to see how God may be moving through this aging process. My hope is that this will be the first step in learning to age gracefully.

Birthday Examen

I begin by quieting myself in God’s presence, taking a few moments to breathe deeply and remind myself that God is with me right here and now. 

Then I think back through each month of the last year. The memories play out in my mind like scenes in a movie. 

When a difficult memory arises, I imagine God holding and loving me through it. 

When a joyful memory arises, I thank and praise God for that precious gift. 

After reviewing the year, I ponder these questions with the Lord:

  • When in the last year did I feel most full of life? I spend some time remembering exactly what those moments felt like. 
  • How can I discover more of those life-giving moments in this upcoming year? I let the Holy Spirit guide my imagination.
  • When in the last year did I feel farthest from God? I look honestly at what caused that feeling of separation.
  • How can I prevent feeling far from God in this next year? Do I need to repent of anything or ask for help? I discuss this openly with the God who loves me so very much. 

Finally, I ask God for a word, phrase, or verse to carry with me as I enter this next year of life. I repeat it a few times as I end my time of prayer.

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Alyson Rockhold

Alyson Rockhold was a missionary in Tanzania, Haiti, and Zambia. Now she works in communications at Global Water Center. You can follow her on Instagram @alysonrockhold She and her husband live in Lafayette, CO.

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